Do academic discussions of political theory belong to the world of make-believe?by Christopher Fear / October 1, 2013 / Leave a comment
Writing in 1942, the Oxford Professor of Metaphysics, RG Collingwood, said that dismissing academic discussion for insignificant speech is like “scolding little girls for giving dolls’ tea-parties with empty cups and little boys for playing with wooden swords.” Academic discussions, he added, “belong to the world of make-believe.”
Collingwood was specifically talking about my field, political philosophy, as it is done in universities. Reflecting on his words over the last year, I’ve begun to realise how right he was. Political theory seminars and conferences have been getting “curiouser and curiouser.” Like everyone else, I already knew that academia was populated by the kind of characters Lewis Carroll warned us about. There are the Hookah-Smoking Caterpillars, of course, and any postgraduate knows that supervisors are like White Rabbits: always unavailable on account of some other undisclosed urgent deadline. But now I’ve started to realise that academia is in fact an internally-coherent language world presided over by Humpty Dumpty, and that it doesn’t work beyond the context of its rabbit-hole—and perhaps it is best that it doesn’t.
What I’ve been wondering is, do political philosophers know that their world is mostly make-believe? It seems to me that they do, and it seems to be rather a sore point among them. They have long bemoaned the fact that real politicians don’t pay attention to anything they say. In fact the utopians among them are quite indignant about it, because they believe that they are rationally modelling the kind of society that reality should imitate. It is easy to blame philistine politicians and their democratic habit of courting voters by saying what will be popular, rather than what is right. But the philosophers, I think, have got their questions wrong—and wrong in every sense.
Back in May, Alex Worsnip tidily summarised the debate between so-called “idealists” and so-called “realists”: two tribes split over the question of whether political theorists should aim at abstract, universal, normative ideals, or merely empirical descriptions of reality. The battle between “idealists” and “realists” is, fittingly, only an academic one, and is itself an effect of philosophers getting their questions wrong. It is not a matter of universals against particulars, or of “ought” against “is”. It is, quite simply, a question of whose questions belong only in Wonderland.